Building Environments for Innovation

“Special people are special everywhere,” Katia told me, as I interviewed her in a trendy office in a fashionable part of Moscow. This statement has been on my mind since then. Katia was talking about the ability for people to adapt to succeed in new markets and environments, but it stuck with me as a wider notion. As I have been travelling through different countries with different cultures and meeting people with different backgrounds, there has still been a strong sense of similarity across those who work in the sphere of startups and innovation. The people I’ve met in St Petersburg and Seoul speak in the same ways as those in Silicon Valley. I’m sure this is partly down to the global spread of ideas that the internet has made possible, but I also think it is because these people share a mindset, one that we might call ‘special’, and that mindset is independent of their environment.

So perhaps the question of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship boils down to how we nurture the activities of these ‘special’ people. But what does it mean to be special in this way? I’ve met thousands of startup founders, alongside hundreds more who work on innovation in other capacities, and there are certain traits that stand out.

BRAVERY is one (that, or a lack of fear). To be an innovator is to be the ‘weird’ one, challenging norms and questioning the traditional wisdom of the world. Being an innovator is alienating and to speak against the established culture goes against our preservation instincts to make sure we are accepted in a group. This is a scary thing to do, and so you find the innovators are those who are either missing these fears or have the bravery to push through them and put themselves out there anyway.

One of the drivers for this bravery tends to be a real sense of CONVICTION in their ideas. A firm belief that their alternate point of view is the correct one and it is just a case of convincing other people. When it comes to innovative ideas, it is typically impossible to gather evidence to prove this conviction until after the fact. You couldn’t determine the success of Facebook or the iPhone before they were actually launched to the market. So pushing forward an innovative idea requires faith, often in something where it will take many years to prove if your faith was justified. Elon Musk is the epitome of this trait – he has so much faith and conviction in his long-term world view that he will go against the wishes of his investors and the advice of industry experts. (

Once your bravery and conviction has gotten you started, next you will need TENACITY (or one might call it grit) in order to see the idea through to success. The world tends towards inertia, so it takes real force to move things in a new direction. To stand in the minority trying to push this change through is exhausting so it needs someone to really dig their heels in. University of Pennsylvania Psychologist, Angela Lee Duckworth raised the profile of ‘grit’ with her famous 2013 TED talk, sharing her finding that grit is the one consistent determiner of success. (Some other researchers argue that Duckworth’s ‘grit’ is simply a rebranding of the old psychological trait of ‘conscientiousness’, but whatever you call it, it’s a powerful factor for success. Plus, ‘grit’ is excellent rebranding – ‘conscientiousness’ does not conjure the same picture at all)

But bravery, conviction and tenacity are the markers of many different types of successful people. Innovators also need the traits that will allow them to see new possibilities for the world that others can’t imagine.

Of course they will need IMAGINATION, to allow them to picture a future that is radically different to the one they experience with their senses.

Innovators rarely settle with just one successful idea, they are excited by learning and have a tendency towards EXPLORATION. This keeps them on the far edge of understanding emerging fields and trends, and allows them to spot new market gaps as they develop.

I have always believed that true innovation comes from combining ideas from different disciplines; sparks occurring at the intersection of seemingly unconnected ideas. This requires innovators to have DISPARATE UNDERSTANDING across various fields of study. They do not need to be an expert in multiple fields, but at least have the capacity to understand the work of others and assimilate it with their own knowledge.

This ability to understand different points of view also extends to the human level. EMPATHY allows innovators to understand markets and to see the real problems that need solving; recognising the needs, wants and concerns of the masses, not just their own.

Let me be clear that this is not a definitive, researched list, this is just my musings based on years of interactions with successful innovators. It’s also the case that many startups are founded by partners or teams who together encompass these traits, rather than embodying them all in a single person, e.g. one person with the idea and another with the fearless tenacity to pull it off.

So now that we’ve established some sense of who these special people are, the next question is how to encourage them. Thinking from the point of view of someone building their regional innovation ecosystem, there are a few dimensions here:

  1. Ensuring that special people make use of their potential

  2. Ensuring that they use it to benefit your region and not just someone else’s

Addressing the first question is all about establishing appropriate environments to encourage innovators – schooling systems which promote creativity; business cultures that allow for experimentation and failure; bureaucratic structures that don’t stifle fledgling businesses; funding systems with enough risk tolerance to gamble on innovation.

The second question comes back to Katia’s point: “special people are special everywhere”. If you don’t build an environment in which they can flourish, then they will take themselves off to an environment where they can. These people are brave and adaptable and love to explore, so they will follow their convictions across the world if they have to. Innovation hubs like Silicon Valley draw them like the innovator’s Mecca and once you’ve lost your best talent it will take stronger incentives to bring them back.

In fact, the solutions to both questions are really the same – building a nurturing environment from school-level onwards will both coax your innovators out of the woodwork and make them more inclined to stay when they build their businesses. You will always get some whose adventurous streak leads them to new places, but the sense of empathy often inclines innovators towards solving problems for the people they grew up with. They may be the weird ones going against the group, but that is usually because they care deeply for their group and want to see it thrive. Of course, it’s no mean feat to construct this kind of environment, and parts of it will need time to grow organically, but governments do have the means to change the way students are educated and the way small businesses are supported and regulated.

The government in Finland was one of the first to try a radically new approach to education, even though their education system was already one of the highest ranked in the world. In 2015 they announced plans to restructure the curriculum away from the teaching of distinct subjects like Maths and Physics. Instead, Finnish schools are being transitioned to “phenomenon” teaching, where classes are focused around a topic, which is analysed from the perspective of multiple disciplines. A friend of mine who was a teacher and headmaster in Bilbao employed a similar approach in her school (she is a definitive innovator). She told me how she would take the children on field trips to the Bilbao harbour, where they would use that one place to teach them the history of the city alongside the science and geography of the water flows. She would also draw in literary education, with poems and stories of the sea. The other aspect of the new Finnish system is a focus on interactive, group-based learning, rather than the traditional model of the teacher lecturing the class. (I spent one of my formative years as an English teacher in China, and have experienced first-hand how damaging old-fashioned rote-learning can be on developing imagination and innovative thinking).

There are also many examples of governments trying to build support structures and safeguards for startups. The Skolkovo project is an attempt by the Russian government to build a new ‘city of innovation’ just outside Moscow. It includes both a brand-new university (Skoltech), which is already providing post-graduate study in a number of scientific disciplines and aims to offer an internationally competitive level of education with top of the line labs, equipment and professors, and a ‘Technopark’ providing office space and services for technology startups. Around these two pivotal pieces an entire city infrastructure is being built, with transport, housing, education and entertainment. Once complete, the city is intended to be an innovation hub to rival the likes of Silicon Valley. Skolkovo startups receive extensive tax breaks as well as access to services like accounting and legal at reduced prices. The scheme also seeds companies with free grants intended to get them through the ‘valley of death’ that lies between ideation and production. Skolkovo is an extremely ambitious project, and it will be many years before we can really see if it pays off (I will discuss Skolkovo in more depth in a future post), but it is a clear example of a country recognising the need to build a better environment to nurture innovation.

Skolkovo’s example of building a special city to house your special people may be a bit extreme, but there are lessons to be learned from the project and from the Finnish school reforms. There is a need to innovate to build better environments for innovation. If special people are special everywhere, then perhaps the trick is to direct them towards the reform of education and business legislation, and see what happens…

References: Big thanks to Katia Gaika for planting the idea for this post in my head. Katia is a Partner and Executive Director at NGRS (Next Generation Recruitment Services) and spent five years working on the Skolkovo project from 2010-2015.

Thanks to MinYoung You for posting about the Finnish education system on Facebook, and to the Independent for their article on the topic -